“Religious Freedom”: Another Failure to Think in Systems Terms


The recent news has been full of stories about the passage of laws to protect religious freedom. One question that seems always to accompany these stories relates to the discriminatory nature of such laws. Is it right to pass laws that arguably increase the freedom of someone, but at the cost of discriminating against another? This question is posed as very important, as if there is an alternative. But there is not, a fact generally overlooked. It is impossible to increase one’s [negative] freedom without reducing someone else’s. This is always true, no matter what the issue involved.

Laws and other restrictions like this are directed at negative liberty, an idea discussed in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin. He argues that liberty comes in two flavors, positive and negative. Positive liberty determines one’s possibilities to act in any way one chooses. It has to do with one’s life choices in matters of religion, expression, profession, marriage and so on. One should be able to choose without established barriers, but that is not always possible without the authority of some societal institution to crush the restraining power of institutions, like the Church held over the English citizens who fled to the New World to escape them. Such form of liberty did not always exist. Until the advent of the Enlightenment, individuals existed, but caught up in a system of authoritative beliefs that fixed them in a web established by religious orders or societal orders, like medieval feudalism.

Negative liberty is a mundane consequence of positive liberty. Put in a systems framework, unlimited possibility (positive) is possible only if one is alone in the world, living amidst natural beings with no similar rights. The second part was deemed to be the case, as modernity, which brought this kind human of freedom, also relegated the world itself, save for humans, as fodder for our mills, having no such libertarian rights. Perhaps there was a time with only one human being, but genetically that would have been the end of us. As soon as two human beings lived in communicative proximity, natural problems with freedom must have arisen, even if early humans had no words to express their sense of encroachment. So negative freedom, the right to do exactly what I choose, must have accompanied its positive relative, more or less, from the advent of humans on Earth. As the global population grew, human settlements spread into the unsettled frontier where more negative freedom could be found, but such frontiers are all but gone in the industrialized world.

Discrimination is the ability to act in a way to prevent the involvement of some other human being. It is a form of negative liberty and is inseparable from it. One cannot have one without the other, a point that seems missing in almost everything I have been reading about these recent 
“religious freedom” laws. To find some legalistic ground to separate the two is impossible in a systems sense. Looking at the same system, the finite Planet, it is impossible to have positive freedom for any one individual with encroaching on the freedom of another. No law protective of property or some other immaterial right can undo this knot. If there is to be any resolution, it must come from some systemic solution that accepts the finiteness and interconnectedness of everybody.

The closest such concept that comes to my mind is that of “tolerance.” Tolerance is a way of interacting with other beings that accepts the reality of being part of the same system; it is a systemic notion. It has become a moralistic term as something that ought to be practiced as a “good.” But such “goods” are always arguable because they have little or no real grounds, but tolerance can be derived simply from its systemic origins. If I want to be able to exercise my positive freedom, I need freedom from the inhibitory powers of others. I would like them to do their best to allow me my freedom; best in the systems sense in that such allowance must always be judged by some systems-wide criteria. I have no choice but to do the same for them. I cannot, a priori, determine what such criteria should be used because the real world is complex and not amenable to any theoretical optimizing calculus. But I can affirm that no finite laws will be able to produce th systemic result that would be seen to be optimum for all.

We have not followed such a systemic path, passing law after law that defines classes that one can or cannot discriminate against, that is, prevent them from entering one’s sphere of possible activities. The intent of such actions may be meritorious, but the outcomes cannot be because of the failures of systems thinking I have just outlined. If we, as a society, seek to get the most of our real existence, we must begin to practice tolerance seriously. We must question every act taken that consciously excludes another human being for whatever reason we assign. Ask ourselves how deeply does excluding anyone increase my freedom deep down inside? I believe that it is possible to value positive freedom and possibility, but not negative freedom, in the same way that it is not possible to prove a negative. The process of discovering our possibilities, our true freedom, is very difficult and requires a reflective process that enables us to get beneath the rules we have adopted simply because there are out there and have been labeled good.

There is much here that fits my writings on flourishing. Flourishing is, like tolerance, a systemic notion. One cannot observe tolerance until the system shows it. Individuals can act tolerantly, but discrimination will still be the overall outcome until some point where the system will flip into a new tolerant regime. Tolerance can take us part way to flourishing by mitigating or eliminating negative behaviors. Flourishing requires a more positive attitude, one of caring. It is not enough not to consider the needs of others, one needs to positively take care. A moments thought, using a systems focus, should paint a picture of a world where everyone is realizing their human possibilities, not because they are free from the encroachment of others, but because they being pushed toward those possibilities by everyone else.

Such a world is possible, but exceedingly difficult to foresee as real. One strong reason for our blindness lies in our idea of negative freedom, an idea that is consistent with our modern view of the world as made up by individual isolated, disengaged human beings. It’s time to stop tinkering with this idea and start to think systemically. We will have to create the process as we go because we haven’t bothered to do it for many centuries. One important first step is to accept that negative liberty and discrimination are but two sides of the same coin, If we want one, we must get the other, but there is a way to avoid both.